Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Reviving the Chesapeake Scallop

I never knew this before, but Lower Chesapeake Bay used to have a thriving scallop fishery:
The bay scallop has not been commercially viable in the Chesapeake region since 1933, when a combination of disease and a Category 4 hurricane devastated the shellfish’s sea grass habitat on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The scallop industry along the Chesapeake, which produced nearly 2 million pounds of the sweet delicacy in 1930, has never recovered, despite multiple attempts.
But aquaculture experts, fresh off recent successes with oysters, are seeing this as a new opportunity:
Rappahannock may be the perfect company to take on the reclamation project. Cousins and co-owners Ryan and Travis Croxton have already conquered the challenge of Eastern oysters in the Chesapeake, a commercial industry that had nearly collapsed in the early 2000s. Rappahannock was an early adopter of oyster aquaculture in Virginia. The company raised its first crop of 3,000 oysters in 2002. Today, Rappa­hannock harvests 180,000 oysters a week, shipping bivalves all over the country as well as to Asia and Canada.
But it isn't easy:
What the experts and the manual will tell you are the same: Bay scallops are the hothouse flowers of shellfish. They’re finicky creatures that don’t like extreme water temperatures. They don’t grow well in low-salinity waters. They don’t like muddy waters, either. They hate rushing currents, and they require a lot more space than oysters. As if that weren’t enough, bay scallops can suffer other indignities: During spawning season in summer, oyster larvae may affix themselves to a single scallop, which will soon disappear under a bouquet of oyster shells.

During their early development stages, scallops “hate the sediment, but they hate having you rinse them off. They don’t like to get cold, and they don’t like to get hot. They’re just the wimpiest little things,” says Mark Luckenbach, professor of marine science at the Virginia institute.

The Rappahannock crew received an early lesson in bay scallop fragility. The Croxtons bought about 50,000 larvae from a hatchery in New York. As part of the painstaking process to transition the scallops into Chincoteague waters, the Rappahannock team placed the larvae in an upweller system, where the embryonic shellfish are fed nutrients and given a safe space to grow until they’re ready for a natural environment. At least that’s the theory. But a water pump broke on one of the upwellers, and a farmhand didn’t check it for two days.

“We lost a ton [of scallops]. That was just stupidity,” says Ryan Croxton. “That was an easy lesson: Just don’t do that again.”
OK, so it's not that easy, but with practice, I'm sure they can make it work.
Then there’s the marketing side. Part of the reason scallops haven’t recovered in the Chesapeake, says Luckenbach, is that there hasn’t been a consumer market developed for them. The key, Luckenbach adds, is whether diners will be willing to eat scallops on the half shell, with the stomach, intestines and mantle folds visible, looking like an oyster on the half shell that dressed up for a Goth convention. (Typically, only the adductor muscle — a clean ivory nubbin of flesh — is served as a bay scallop.) When eaten on the half shell, a bay scallop tastes like a cross between a sea urchin and the larger sea scallops found in the world’s oceans.

If diners won’t accept scallops on the half shell, there will be little reason for Chesapeake aquaculture farmers to adopt the shellfish. After all, they wouldn’t be able to compete with the major bay scallop producers, whether in Chile or China, who can sell seafood much cheaper.
The lesson is that the scallop can come back to the Bay, if people have an economic reason to do so.

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